Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Aujourd'hui & Bestiaire

Aujourd’hui (Alain Gomis - Senegal/France) 86 minutes

French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis casts slam poet Saul Williams in what is a near-silent role and it's a bit hard to know what to make of it. Williams plays Satché, a man returning to his home-town of Dakar, greeted and fêted by friends and family. He is also, we are told early on, soon to die. It is never disclosed what exactly he is suffering from, whether he is is in fact ill or whether he is a more mythic figure invested with some overarching symbolic value.

Despite this lack of clarity, Aujourd’hui is an engaging film; Gomis films the streets and the life of the Senegalese capital with a deft touch and his vision of devoid of any flagrant exoticism. Williams is also a surprisingly good physical actor, even if at times his muteness in the face of the joyous welcome he gets from neighbours and childhood friends, does strain credibility. Williams doesn’t speak Wolof, or, a few rote-learned lines aside, French; one presumes his casting was as much a commercial as an artistic choice (even if he is hardly a box-office name), something also suggested by the presence of French-Senegalese actress Aïssa Maïga in a French-speaking cameo as his former mistress.

 Fans of Williams may be a bit disappointed then, especially those who first discovered him via Mark Levin’s 1998 film Slam, but Gomis’s gambit does pay off. Aujourd’hui (his third film) is languid and ultimately moving, a fresh reworking of the chronicle-of-a-death-foretold genre. It has also met with success on the continent on which it is set, taking the Yennenga Golden Stallion this week at Burkina Faso’s Fespaco, Africa’s foremost film festival.


Bestiaire (Denis Côté - Canada/France) 72 minutes

Quebecois director Denis Côté, who gave us the very impressive Curling three years ago, takes time out between projects to film this slice of nature documentary, which observes the animals and keepers at a zoo in Hemingford, Quebec over the course of a year. The animals range from the exotic - lions, elephants and Bactrian camels - to the more mundane - cattle and ponies - and are filmed in long, static takes, all strung together without recourse to commentary or any apparent narrative schema.

Calm filmic observations of this sort have become commonplace in recent years, with Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread and Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte notable examples. Bestiaire is similarly precise and patient but Côté’s overweening artiness soon begins to grate - do we really need to see antelopes represented by the mere bobbing of their antlers at the bottom of a judiciously framed shot? Sometimes you just want something simple. Our Daily Bread and Le Quattro Volte also benefited from having more humans in it. Bestiaire only really comes to life when the two-legged creatures make their appearance and the film’s aestheticised anthropomorphism recedes; irony of ironies, the apex of this marked improvement comes in a sequence that portrays the zoo’s taxidermists at work, which I, for one, found fascinating.

You can only admire a successful young director like Côté for having a go at something so commercially unlikely as this but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have made it a little more involving. Bestiaire, for all its handsomeness, drags at times and at others resembles a high-concept internet cat video. We all love our pets but it’s hard to devote more than a few minutes at a time to them before their core source of fascination dries up. Humans, for all our brutishness, vanity, cruelty and tendency to horrendous deeds, are ultimately more interesting.